Tuesday, May 29, 2012

No Religious Test

The No Religious Test Clause of the U.S. Constitution says that "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States." Yet remarkably, no less than eight of our state constitutions either give theists preferential treatment or single out atheists to deny them the right to hold office:

Arkansas – Article 19, Sec. 1:
No person who denies the being of a God shall hold any office in the civil departments of this State, nor be competent to testify as a witness in any Court.
Maryland – Article 37:
That no religious test ought ever to be required as a qualification for any office of profit or trust in this State, other than a declaration of belief in the existence of God[.]
Mississippi – Article 14, Sec. 265:
No person who denies the existence of a Supreme Being shall hold any office in this state.
North Carolina – Article 6, Sec. 8:
The following persons shall be disqualified for office: Any person who shall deny the being of Almighty God.
Pennsylvania – Article 1, Sec. 4:
No person who acknowledges the being of a God and a future state of rewards and punishments shall, on account of his religious sentiments, be disqualified to hold any office or place of trust or profit under this Commonwealth.
South Carolina – Article 17, Sec. 4:
No person who denies the existence of a Supreme Being shall hold any office under this Constitution.
Tennessee – Article 9, Sec. 2:
No person who denies the being of God, or a future state of rewards and punishments, shall hold any office in the civil department of this state.
Texas – Article 1, Sec. 4:
No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office, or public trust, in this State; nor shall any one be excluded from holding office on account of his religious sentiments, provided he acknowledge the existence of a Supreme Being.
There are a few things worth noting here. One is that Maryland and South Carolina have overturned their clauses (although they're still on the books). Another is the bias toward classical monotheism baked into the wording: in most of these clauses it's taken for granted that one god exists who's superior to all other beings. A third is that Pennsylvania and Tennessee also focus on belief in "a future state of rewards and punishments"—which throws deists out in the cold along with Taoists, Shintoists and many Jews. Finally, Arkansas' constitution doesn't even allow atheists to testify as court witnesses. But this is Arkansas we're talking about, so maybe we're just lucky there's no law saying we need to be shot on sight.

As bigoted as these provisions are, they're thankfully superseded by the federal Constitution. But that doesn't mean they've never caused any harm. In 1961, Roy Torcaso's appointment as a notary public was revoked after he refused to declare a belief in God. The case of Torcaso v. Watkins went all the way to the Supreme Court, which unanimously struck down Maryland's religious test clause. But that was 50 years ago. Surely we've grown as a nation since then, right? Well, virtually the same thing happened in 1992 when Herb Silverman crossed "so help me God" off of his oath to become a notary in South Carolina. And in 2009 Cecil Bothwell was elected to the city council in Asheville, North Carolina—but not without a group of vocal opponents trying to bar him from office and sending out fliers fearmongering over his unbelief.

It's important to remember, too, that highly-publicized prejudice is not the only form of harm that can come from clauses like these. Although they have no real legal weight, fundamentalists can still use them as ammunition to intimidate would-be public servants. For every atheist who runs for office, how many aspire to but decide against it due to a wall of opposition that's both institutional and societal? Striking these intolerant words from our governing documents wouldn't instantly erase the deep-seated prejudice that Americans have against atheists in politics—but it would be show that we're ready to give them a chance.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Key to Science

Here's Richard Feynman explaining science in 63 seconds:

It's so simple. It's so incredibly, impossibly simple. I liked Feynman's explanation so much that I converted it into flowchart form:

Using this unassuming little method is like following a compass when lost in the wilderness. Despite constant opportunities to veer off course, science keeps you on the right track by forcing your assumptions to adhere to objective reality.

Each step of the process is crucial. If you don't make any guesses, you live in a world devoid of any truth claims. If you don't make predictions, your truth claims are useless. If you don't test those predictions, you'll never know if they're wrong. And if they're wrong but you keep them anyway instead of starting afresh, you'll be operating on potentially harmful false assumptions—and any assumptions built on top of them will probably be false as well.

It's such a remarkably simple heuristic, yet it seems so hard to instill into people as a fundamental value. Why is that? Maybe it's because it seems cold and harsh to unceremoniously toss our cherished ideas out the window when they turn out to be wrong. It's often easier to just go on believing what you've always believed, and sometimes false beliefs just appeal to us more than the truth.

This is where a solid science education ought to come in, but things often go wrong at some point along the way. When I was in grade school, we learned about the scientific method and even used it to do experiments in class. But we were never really shown the deep significance behind the process—how it allows fields like aeronautics and genetics to flourish in just a few decades, while astrology and faith healing spin fruitlessly in circles for millennia. This basic system, carefully honed through advancements like double-blinding, significance testing, peer review and replication, ensures that the map of our knowledge matches the territory of reality. And once we can easily navigate the known world, we can set out for parts unknown, on a voyage to fill in the farthest reaches of the map.

Monday, May 7, 2012

The Televangelist's Con

I was channel flipping last night when I came across a televangelist by the name of Mike Murdock. At first I thought he was just preaching some gimmicky message about "the five wisdom keys," but after a couple of minutes I realized that he was peddling his personal brand of prosperity theology. What you give to God, Murdock said, he will return to you a hundredfold.

He repeatedly referred to this as "planting a seed," and used his own life as an alleged example. He'd had only a few thousand dollars to his name and given most of it away, when suddenly strangers approached him with expensive gifts: a rare vintage car, a $10,000 check, a luxury van. His premise doesn't even make mathematical sense: if everyone receives dramatically more than they give, where's it all coming from? Is God stealing it from the non-givers or something? It's all nothing more than a religious Ponzi scheme, one invented wholesale simply to jump-start the first layer of the investment pyramid.

Then came the actual requests for cash: Murdock urged viewers to get up from the sofa and plant their $1,000 seed. You sometimes hear about the questionable practices televangelists employ, but it's a bit surreal to watch one of them gaze right into the eyes of the home audience to ever-so-fervently bilk them out of their hard-earned money. Interestingly, I never heard any specific information about where the money would go. Both in his TV sales pitch and on his horribly garish website, he says only that it goes toward "spreading the gospel." Sounds awfully fishy—and sure enough, it turns out that he spends most of the donations on himself. Less than one percent goes to charity.

Murdock specifically makes people in financial trouble the targets of his exploitation. He promises that your debt will vanish, that you'll make your mortgage payment, if only you plant your seed. He's intent on wringing every last coin out of them:
"Maybe you've got money in a closet somewhere, in a coin collection, in stocks and bonds. I don't know where you're going to get it, but you know."
One last bit of abuse that really made my jaw drop was his promise of "household salvation." He said that after one woman had promised to write him a check, the Holy Spirit had come to him and said:
"Tell her that because she's planted a seed to spread the gospel, every member of her family will be saved."
All those who planted the seed, Murdock said, could receive this wonderful blessing as a "fourth harvest" in the next 90 days. The words "insane" and "despicable" come to mind, but don't even begin to describe what this man is doing. When someone says, 'Give me money and your loved ones will receive eternal reward,' they've arguably splintered off from Christianity and started their own personal cult.

At first I considered the possibility that Murdock could actually believe what he was saying. But the more I read about his history, the more obvious it was that he's motivated by pure greed. He's taken full advantage of an environment that eschews skepticism and critical thinking in favor of miraculous stories and emotional appeals. My guess is that as soon as he steps off that stage, he's laughing all the way to the bank.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Fun With Memes

The r/atheism subreddit is often overrun with image-based memes that satirize Christianity. I have no problem with the memes in themselves—ideas are not inherently deserving of respect, and humor is often a good way to approach the more ridiculous ones—but they tend to get pretty repetitive and the logic doesn't always make sense. I usually spend more time in one of the reddit's many alternatives to r/atheism, but here I'd like to share a few of the memes that I actually did enjoy.

As a general rule, these memes tend to point out an inconsistency with some facet of Christianity. They're nothing groundbreaking, but they do get their point across in a concise, funny and sometimes unconventional way. I'll start with a few choice sayings from the big man himself:

The Scumbag Christian meme focuses on apparent hypocrisies common among Christians themselves. It features particularly obtuse fundamentalist Kirk Cameron wearing the Scumbag Hat as its primary inspiration:

Philosoraptor may use some unusual reasoning to reach his conclusions, but he often does have a good point to make:

And here's Condescending Wonka to raise a few final issues in his lovably patronizing tone:

If you like these, there are hundreds more in the r/AdviceAtheists subreddit. Personally, though, I think of them as I would a particularly rich dessert: slightly nauseating when consumed too often, but delightful in moderation.